30 years later; Lessons from the Korean armistice

Thirty years later, the tensions of the Korean war and of the armistice that followed still haunt East Asia. For the United States, the three-year war that began on June 25, 1950, when North Korea invaded the South was the fifth most costly in history. For the Korean people, the conflict left their unique society more divided than ever before, perpetuating a political and military confrontation that has since become institutionalized in the governments of two apparently implacable enemies - North and South Korea.

Since the Korean armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, the United States has demonstrated a military commitment to its South Korean ally that has seldom wavered and that has effectively prevented a recurrence of the invasion from the North.

On the other hand, the US as well as China and the Soviet Union has consistently failed to seek a political solution to the division of the Korean Peninsula, permitting themselves instead to be drawn into an enervating confrontation which has strained their financial resources and exhausted their goodwill.

A sober reminder of the stalemate on the Korean Peninsula recently took the form of a US Senate resolution of July 14, 1983, which voices congratulations on the 30th anniversary of the United States-Republic of Korea Mutual Defense Treaty. (The actual anniversary is Oct. 1.)

But the more important anniversary falls on July 27, marking the final signing of the Korean armistice agreement and the end of the longest military armistice negotiations in recorded history. This armistice has been largely ignored in the intervening years and is now almost forgotten.

On July 27, 1953, in a bare room in a village crossroad unknown to previous history named Panmunjom, US Lt. Gen. William K. Harrison and Gen. Nam Il, a Soviet-born Korean, ended the marathon armistice talks with their signatures. UN Commander Gen. Mark Clark, Gen. Peng Teh-huai, commander of the Chinese People's Volunteers, and Marshal Kim Il Sung, Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army, signed later. No South Korean signed.

Thus ended a costly engagement that almost certainly could have been prevented by the stationing of one regiment of US combat troops in Korea from 1948-50. Many observers, Americans and Koreans alike, have called it an unnecessary war.

Now the United States has 40,000 troops stationed more or less permanently in South Korea. There was a modest reduction in troops during the early 1970s, and former President Jimmy Carter attempted to bring home the 28,000 ground troops in 1977-78. However, by 1979 Carter backed off from his withdrawal proposal and reaffirmed the policy of his predecessors in maintaining a strong military commitment to South Korea, including combat troops.

The armistice agreement brought about a generally successful exchange of nearly 96,000 prisoners of war under procedures encouraging voluntary repatriation. Among the POWs from the North, 21,400 chose to remain in the Republic of Korea or proceed to Taiwan or India; 347 POWs from the United Nations Command (a US operation under the UN flag) chose to remain in the North. To safeguard this right, the UN Command had suffered more than 125,000 casualties, and the communists (then chiefly Chinese ''volunteers'') had casualties of an estimated quarter of a million men.

In the process, untold billions of dollars had been spent. And Korean culture lost, to American bombs in the North, a quarter of its total classical architectural heritage.

The agreement also created a relatively effective, 21/2-mile wide, 151-mile long demilitarized zone (DMZ) roughly near the 38th parallel, which had divided Korea into Soviet and American zones since 1945. In the past 30 years, some 350, 000 armistice violations are alleged to have taken place in, through, and around this zone. These violations have been reported at Panmunjom to the Military Armistice Commission - a creation of the armistice agreement.

Finally, the agreement has uneasily and cantankerously kept, if not the peace , then at least an absence of warfare. The principal exceptions have been two 31 - to 100-man North Korean raids on the South in 1968, though there have been many isolated shootings across the eerie world of the DMZ.

The creation of the DMZ and its rudimentary peace are worthy and hardly trivial accomplishments. Yet the armistice agreement has not ended the United States' prolonged problems in and with Korea.

Like the US-proposed 38th parallel decision taken in 1945, the armistice was forced on South Korean President Syngman Rhee, who refused to sign it and even often vowed to continue the conflict. That opposition has softened with time and with Rhee's passing, but the problems of peace and military confrontation have grown.

Also provided for in the armistice were arms control measures and a recommendation to pursue a negotiated peace. A generation later, neither of these obligations has been fulfilled. The elaborate arms control clause was designed to prevent any increase in existing armed strength through inspection at designated ports of entry by teams from the ''neutral'' nations of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Given the poor condition and deficient armament of the North Korean forces in 1953 and the subsequent unforeseen withdrawal of the dominant Chinese forces by December 1958, it was probably unrealistic to expect the agreement to hold. In any case, it was immediately violated by the North, the investigation of whose violations the Polish and Czech members of the inspection teams could - and always did - prevent. There were also inspection problems in the South.

For inspection purposes, the neutral nations' teams had been stationed in ports and cities throughout North and South Korea. The neutral nations requested ''temporary'' withdrawal to the DMZ which, in June 1956, the UN Command accepted and North Korea could not prevent. In August 1957, the UN Command also announced itself free of any restraints imposed by the armistice agreement on the introductions of arms ''until . . . the relative military balance has been restored. . . .''

Within a few weeks, the US began locating in the South atomic warheads, bombs , shells, missiles, and mines. (South Korea now appears to be the only location for active deployment of nuclear mines, since those sent to the European theater have been removed at West Germany's request.)

Despite admissions of the South's military superiority in 1971 and former Defense Secretary Harold Brown's announcement of military parity during the Carter administration, no attempt has been made to revive arms control in Korea. With the number of armed men some seven times greater than in June 1950 and with weaponry probably 100 times more powerful, the peninsula today is the locus of a dangerous military confrontation and of an arms race gone out of control.

Meanwhile, the channels toward peace remain clogged.

At the time of the armistice, military commanders on both sides recommended that a political conference ''on a higher level'' take place within three months , in the words of the agreement, ''to settle through negotiation the questions of the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Korea, the peaceful settlement of the Korean question, etc.''

The conference finally took place in Geneva from April 26 to June 15, 1954, with representatives from both Koreas, the main foreign participants in the Korean war, and the Soviet Union being present. The conference broke down without results because of mutual distrust. The communist side believed that the UN, as a belligerent, lacked, in the words of then Soviet Foreign Minister V.M. Molotov, the ''capacity to act as an impartial international body'' and supervise elections. The United Nations side believed that Communist proposals appeared to delay elections, while being vague about their supervision, and that the workability of the proposed ''all-Korea commission'' was questionable, especially in view of the apparently implacable North-South hostility.

No further political conference has ever been convened, and none is currently in prospect. After 30 years, Korea has no peace treaty; the law of war continues to apply. In no other instance in which it has gone to war has peace so long eluded the United States.

Oddly, although the animosity persists, the issues that divided the two sides at Geneva have softened. Step by step the UN has disengaged from the Korea issue. The UN Commission on Korea was dissolved in 1973, and the Korean question was removed from annual debates in the General Assembly in 1976. By inviting North Korea as a permanent observer and by establishing a UN development program in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, the UN has moved from advocacy of one side toward a somewhat more impartial position.

Even South Korea normally no longer talks of UN-supervised elections, and it is approaching acceptance of the legal equality of the North. During the UN debates in 1970, South Korea accepted North Korea's presence; then in 1973 it advocated admission of both Koreas to the UN; more recently it has supported cross-recognition of the two Koreas by the four major powers in Asia (US, Soviet Union, China, and Japan).

Yet despite the signs of greater normality on both sides, shortsighted policies have so far prevented these advances from being reflected in substantive, direct improvement in North-South relations.

The United States, the United Nations, and North Korea's allies have largely withheld their own efforts toward Korean unification in the hope that the two Koreas would solve the problem. This approach has never been realistic since it depends on compromise and accommodation from the very two parties to the conflict least able to provide these qualities.

The two Koreas each continue to indulge in mutual vilification with a shrillness and inhumanity that shames the best in Korean culture and betrays Koreans' aspirations toward unity or at least coexistence. North Korea pertinaciously refuses any communication with President Chun Doo Hwan on grounds of ''banditry'' in shooting his way to power. None of the Chun regime's proposals for reconciliation have yet breached this objection.

Meanwhile, both Koreas strongly oppose any attempts by other powers to mitigate the hostility. Instead, the flow of foreign arms aggravates the division. The South, in particular, has imported some three times as many arms as the North. Indeed, given the level of military buildup on both sides, there is constant danger that the hostility on the peninsula will spread outward into conflicts elsewhere.

Rather than recognizing the need for mediation, each Korea demands of its allies adherence to an unparalleled hostility that is nurtured daily within this once uniquely homogeneous people and that each side now appears to have a vested interest in perpetuating.

Japan has tried quietly to increase communication with both sides. Although little reported, the Japanese have tried to obtain exchanges of newspapermen and trade offices with Pyongyang. And the North Koreans now appear ready to consider similar contacts with the US.

Such contacts could ultimately help South Korea, whose own efforts toward reunification are unlikely to succeed in the foreseeable future. And they would begin to make good on US promises to help Korea out of the peninsula division which was initiated by the American 38th parallel proposal in 1945.

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